At this point, all 12 of the current Miami football players who were implicated in the Yahoo! Sports investigation remain eligible for the season-opening game against Maryland on Labor Day night. According to the report, convicted felon and former booster Nevin Shapiro says he supplied at least 72 former and current players with money, gifts, prostitutes, and other favors, and that at least six football and men’s basketball coaches were aware of some of his activities.
I had a lengthy discussion today with Billy Corben, the filmmaker who directed the “ESPN 30 for 30” documentary “The U,” the story of the renegade Miami football program in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Corben also directed and co-produced another must-see, “Cocaine Cowboys,” which examines the blood-soaked drug culture in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the interest of full disclosure, the old-school ‘Canes - not the post-1995 ‘Canes - used to be near and dear to my heart. Long, long ago, when I still was a “fan” of any sports team, the Jimmy Johnson- and Dennis Erickson-coached bad-boy ‘Canes were my team. My grandparents, who lived in Homestead, Fla., sent me bundles of the Miami Herald each week. I wore a Gino Torretta jersey as much as the law allowed. And I attended the Miami-Nebraska Orange Bowl game in January 1992. I have not been a sports fan for more than a decade now, but the University of Miami program has remained fascinating over the years. Corben elaborated on some of these issues at hand:
Q: Rogue boosters are nothing new in college sports. But in terms of the depth and scope of this report, were you surprised when you read it?
A: No is the short answer. College students in Miami at a nightclub, at a restaurant, on a boat, these are the average Facebook profile pictures of a University of Miami student. There was nothing particularly shocking about most of what was in the report … There is no drug use here. There are no people running around with guns, which by the way wouldn’t surprise me either, but there is none of that.
Q: From “Cocaine Cowboys” to “The U,” what is it about the city of Miami that breeds nefarious activity and this sort of behavior?
A: For starters, we’re a highly transient population. There’s always new faces, there’s always new money, new condos, new houses. The landscape is always changing. It’s really one Great Gatsby-esque story after another. The go-to line here is when the champagne is flowing and the checks are cashing, no one asks any questions. Nobody says, ‘Well, wait, where is all this coming from, all this booze and all this cash?’ Nobody asks that question. You can’t waltz into some wealthy community in New England with a name nobody knows and new money without them looking at you sideways. Here no one really knows anyone anyway, and you’ll probably be gone tomorrow back to Venezuela, or Cuba, or Chile, or Brazil. That’s the attitude of the town. Unfortunately, that also is pervasive in the mentality of the University of Miami administration. You can go back to the 1980s. The joke was that the parking lot at UM looks like a luxury car dealership because all the Cocaine Cowboys sent their sons and daughters to the expensive, private college. You didn’t see Tad Foote, the president of the University of Miami (from 1981 through 2001), having to give back any of that cocaine money. Nobody at Miami gave that money back. It wound up in the foundation of the skyline. In the 1980s, Miami (the city) was defined by drug wars, race riots, an influx of immigrants by [the Mariel] Boatlift and the rise of hip-hop music, 2 Live Crew and Luther Campbell, and so you look at the University of Miami and where its money was coming from. And the attitude of the football program, it is defined by the characteristics of the city. What defines Miami, Fla., in this past decade? It is mortgage fraud, Medicare fraud and the biggest Ponzi schemers in the history of the world were all exposed in Florida or with very deep connections to south Florida. And so who do you see running out of the smoke and donating money? Those are the characters around the campus now.
Q: You mentioned Luther Campbell. Nevin Shapiro is a wannabe. You see any similarities?
A: It’s very post-modern. I don’t think anyone called [Shapiro] ‘Little Luke’ except himself, by the way. More like a ‘Mini Madoff.’ It’s like kids on the street who saw Scarface and The Godfather and want to be like that. He saw Uncle Luke doing it and so he wanted to do that. The thing is, he didn’t even come close. Luther was not a booster of the University of Miami. He did not donate money to the school. He was about the kids. He knew the kids from the street. They knew him. They respected him. They looked up to him. He was a brother, a father figure. He supported the players. He did it with his peewee league for decades. Training and bringing up new generations of Miami Hurricanes and kids who went on to play football all over the country. Shapiro was about Shapiro. And he was about buying his credibility. And he did. And the University of Miami administration endorsed this man, and essentially in a way forced him on the student-athletes. How? They put a plaque with the guy’s face on it right on the wall in what was called the Nevin Shapiro Student-Athlete Lounge. What kind of example does that set? Where were the educations here? Where were the role models? Who was setting the tone? Well, we see the people setting the tone. A fish rots from the head. The people setting the tone start with that woman in that picture in Yahoo! Sports looking down in that check beaming like she has a halo around her head, counting the zeroes in front of the decimal point. That $50,000 check, and that image of her accepting it, Donna Shalala accepting it, that check bought her moral authority as far as I am concerned. How can you with one hand take a check from this guy, and with the other hand wag your finger condescendingly in the face of a student-athlete and say, ‘You are held to a higher standard than we are, than the university administration is’? That’s not fair. But what makes her different from the governor of Florida or any mayors down here in Dade County? That’s just Miami. It’s easy for some to shrug it off, but it doesn’t make it right.
Q: When Shapiro was allegedly in the press box and had the verbal altercation with the Miami compliance director during the final home game at the Orange Bowl, was that right around the time you approached Miami about the documentary?
A: That was exactly the time. You know what was wild about this, Alfred, our producing partner, a light bulb went on in his head Tuesday night when everyone was poring through this stuff … We had already approached the university, and we had gone to the sports information director. And they were tentative at first, meaning we wanted to get footage of the team plane at the Orange Bowl. Our cameraman was at that Virginia game, that last game, shooting footage of the stadium. And basically they went from tentative to unsupportive to obstructionist in the span of about several weeks. They must have thought, ‘Oh, what a coincidence,’ these guys are coming around to make a movie about the football program right at the time they knew Nevin Shapiro was running amok in the athletic department. They must have thought we were tipped off to him, or if they had given us the access they were looking for at the time, that we would have found him pretty quickly. The truth of the matter was that we were more interested in the ‘80s games, that was the purpose of the whole enterprise. It was purely a coincidence. But Alfred said, ‘This might actually explain why they were so irrationally unsupportive of our project and really tried to derail the whole thing.’ That was back in 2007. They knew they had a problem, at least then, with this guy possibly.
Q: Do you feel for Coach Al Golden, who inherited this mess? And he says he did not know about any of this until recently. How is that possible that no one communicated it to him?
A: This is a guy, by all accounts, you can take at his word. This is not a guy looking to get off on the wrong foot either. It is pretty stunning to think that, at the very least, Kirby Hocutt (the Miami AD when Golden was hired), before he decided to cut and run, that he would have said, when he was taking his last box out of the athletic office would knock on Golden’s door and say, ‘Hey, listen, I know I just hired you. You may want to be on the lookout, the NCAA might come poking around.’ You’d think that he would give Golden a courtesy of a ‘Yo! Heads-up’ before this football came crashing into his head when he wasn’t looking. The specter of these allegation or this evidence is a year old. Shapiro said he would write a tell-all book about the football program last summer. I guess that was not cause for concern in and of itself. The NCAA says it has been investigating for five months. And perhaps plausible deniability was what was best for the coach at the time, too. God knows his plate was full. And that is the real tragedy of the situation so far. This team, this coaching staff has been busting their asses to get it together for this season. And now on the eve of kickoff this happens.
Q: As we both know, this program was decimated by NCAA sanctions in the 1990s. Do you think this punishment will be worse and how long will it take for the program to recover?
A: I can’t imagine that the punishment will be worse this time, if there is any punishment at all. On Tuesday my line was where there is smoke, there is fire. Today, I am thinking where there is smoke, there is more smoke. Maybe the smoke is a little thicker when you get closer. It certainly doesn’t seem to me, with the most convincing evidence that we have seen, that the student-athletes really did anything wrong, well, certainly didn’t do anything illegal or immoral, at least as far as the community standards down here are concerned. Whether or not they actually violated any NCAA regulations, my line about that NCAA regulations are like marijuana laws --- Americans don’t understand or respect them. I think this is the time, if there has ever been a time, the NCAA does not need reform, it needs a complete and utter overhaul. … It’s very often that the guilty parties get away with it, and it’s the student-athletes behind them that get punished, which is also a real shame in all this. You’re punishing a kid in high school or middle school who might miss out on a scholarship opportunity because the NCAA stripped a school of them. If something is proven, if there is an email that shows Hocutt was aware of this much earlier, is he still allowed to be an athletic director [at Texas Tech], are there sanctions against Kirby Hocutt? Or is it the institution that he left behind in shambles? And not just the institution, but students who had nothing whatsoever to do with any of it? In what justice system in the world do people deliberately punish the innocent and allow the guilty to go free?
Q: Who is most to blame for this scandal?
A: It’s a matter of setting a tone and leading by example and stressing what is important. And I think that image of Donna Shalala tells you everything that is wrong with academia, intercollegiate sports, the NCAA and, ultimately, the country when it comes to influence, special interests, lobbying and access to power. You can see in that image how easy it is. That’s where the responsibility is. A university has a responsibility to protect its students and particularly to protect its students against sinister characters like the Nevin Shapiros of the world. The University of Miami administratively failed to protect its students.